Some Big Finish ranges are never exactly what I want them to be, but fundamentally solid enough that I enjoy them anyway — Counter-Measures is probably a good example of this. Others, however, always seem to dance just on the other side of that line, with the occasional exception, and UNIT is a case in point. If you go back over my earlier reviews, I feel like I come across as desperately wanting to like it, but never able to fully do so. After the rough start of Extinction and Shutdown, the range seemed to pick up with Silenced, Assembled, and Encounters, but never quite nailed it. Unfortunately, despite the double whammy of Cybermen and Derek Jacobi, Cyber-Reality is a return to the problems of old.
I do like these characters (well, except for “international troubleshooter” Sam Bishop), but the stories Big Finish tell about them just don’t use them well. The first story here alternates between Kate and Osgood solving puzzles at the behest of an evil disembodied presence, while Sam finally does something, waking up chained on a deserted ship with a hot young heiress. On the extras, writer Matt Fitton opines that this story is meant to show Kate and Osgood as a dynamic problem-solving duo… but it’s really just them driving around and reacting to things that patently don’t matter, a problem that’s plagued all of Big Finish’s recent forays into the “omnipotent puzzlemaster” genre. Meanwhile, we learn nothing at all about Sam. I get that he’s supposed to be a suave, charismatic super-spy, a man who works best on his own, but in actuality, he’s just yet another pleasant person who’s good at his job. Which is basically all of these characters.
Aside from the Cybermen and the Master, the focus of this set is virtual reality… and all I have to say about Guy Adams’s second episode is that if I never encountered another science-fiction story based around the “if you die in the [game/dream/simulation], you DIE IN REAL LIFE!” again, it wouldn’t be soon enough.
On the extras, Adams indicates the third episode was supposed to show off just how good and unflappable Kate Stewart is. I would never have guessed it based on the actual episode, because it mostly alternates between Kate delivering technobabble exposition to Josh, and a Cyber-converted Osgood and a Cyberman deliving technobabble exposition to each other. There’s no sense of threat here; when Josh gets mad that the Cybermen have massacred a whole base of UNIT personnel we’ve literally never heard, it’s hard to do anything but laugh. Oh no, Neal! (Who the hell were you?)
The fourth episode is probably the best, because it’s the one that’s got Derek Jacobi in. Plus, I got a sense that the Master thinks Sam Bishop is as crap as I do. But the Master is honestly a bit too cuddly here; there’s no sense that he would ever actually do anything dangerous to our protagonists — compare the UNIT/Master showdowns we got on screen during the Michelle Gomez era. Also I’m not really keen on the new Cyber-voice Nicholas Briggs uses here, a sort of mix of various other ones that’s too lightly modulated.
I think that fundamentally the problem of this series is that it doesn’t play to the strengths of its medium. For some reason, so many of the stories in it are giant action set pieces. Well, who cares about a bunch of Cybermen invading a UNIT sea fort on audio? There’s no spectacle to be had. Audio can work really well with character and with suspense, but there’s so little of that in these straightforward action-adventure narratives. There aren’t even other actors for these characters to play off. Outside of the core cast, the Cybermen, and the Master, this set has exactly two other characters across four discs of story, and one of them is a UNIT medic whose job is to stand there while Sam Bishop recuperates. Guy Adams talks about on the extras how UNIT pushes him out of his usual strengths. I wish he was using his usual strengths! Immediately after this, I listened to the Torchwood story We Always Get Out Alive, a masterpiece of suspense and character. It feels almost impossible to me that the same person wrote that as “Colonel Shindi leads characters through a VR desert” and “Kate delivers exposition in a room to Josh”.
A lot of otherwise talented people work on this range. I love Kate Stewart on screen. Ingrid Oliver as Osgood wowed me in the Zygon two-parter. Ramon Tikaram is an excellent actor. James Joyce is usually quite likeable. Warren Brown exists. Guy Adams is an often fantastic writer. David Richardson has masterminded any number of Big Finish successes. And even Matt Fitton occasionally writes a corker. But UNIT has never really taken off. I think that after six box sets and 24 episodes, if Big Finish can’t produce something consistently compelling, maybe I need to finally call it quits.
Cyber-Reality (by Matt Fitton, Guy Adams; starring Jemma Redgrave, Ingrid Oliver) was released by Big Finish Productions in May 2018.